By Carlos Brown Solà
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“Unequal” is the best word to describe a country like Mexico, and the Mexico City metropolitan area is the best mirror to look into this. Just an hour away by car from the cosmopolitan and hip Polanco neighbourhood, crossed by the President Masaryk avenue crowded with luxury boutiques, lies the most dangerous municipality in the country according to the national statistics institute: Ecatepec, the most populous municipality in the country with 1.6 million inhabitants, as many as the joint populations of Luxembourg, Montenegro and Malta. On June 4, the voters of the State of Mexico chose their new governor. What are the implications for the 2018 presidential race?
The state of the State of Mexico
The State of Mexico – also called Edomex due to its name in Spanish, Estado de México – encloses the former Federal District, now Mexico City, and is home to 16 million people – similar to the population of the Netherlands – largely concentrated in the 40 municipalities next to Mexico City which are part of the Valley of Mexico Metropolitan Area, the biggest and most populous urban agglomeration in Latin America. Due to the rising cost of living in Mexico City, the State of Mexico is home to a large proportion of the poor population in the metropolitan area: 49.6% of the state population are poor, and only 17% are considered non-poor or non-vulnerable 1. But the Mexican capital city is not alone in this situation, since this seems to be a regional phenomenon in Latin America. For example, Bogota faces the same issue, with the Cundinamarca state enclosing the capital city and hosting a large part of the poor population in the Bogota metropolitan zone.
Recently, the Spanish newspaper El País declared the State of Mexico an “economic failure”: During the six years of Eruviel Ávila’s state government, its average 2% economic growth rate has been below the 3% national average over the same period. The State of Mexico still remains the 7th state with the lowest per capita income in the country – around US$4.000 a year –, and almost half of the state’s population lives in poverty.
Add to that precarious economic situation a lack of law and order. The State of Mexico has the highest homicide rate in the country, with 12 homicides per 100,000 people – 2.671 total murders in 2014 –, and concentrates 7 of the 50 most dangerous municipalities in the country. The most crucial public security problem is femicides: 263 in 2016, including 39 in Ecatepec. Despite having a gender alert in 10 municipalities, the current state government has not tackled gender violence, which currently makes the State of Mexico the most dangerous to be a woman.
Because Mexico is such a centralized country, what happens in the State of Mexico affects not only Mexico City, but also the rest of the country. This makes this state a crucial territory for national politics. It is home to 13% of the national population and the home state of the current Mexican president and former governor, Enrique Peña Nieto.
No political alternation for 85 years
That is why last week’s local elections were closely followed nationwide – that and, well, there is a presidential election coming up in 2018. Despite the previously described economic and social situation, the incumbent party – the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, center), the party of Peña Nieto – won the election and will hold the state power. That has been the case for the last 85 years, making this state one the fives with no political alternation in the country.
On June 4, the PRI candidate, Alfredo Del Mazo – a cousin of Enrique Peña’s and the soon-to-be third Del Mazo governor in the state – won the state election with 33.7% of the votes. In second place was Delfina Gomez with 30.8%, candidate of the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA, left wing) – the newest major party in the Mexican political landscape, founded in 2014. MORENA is led by the twice left-wing presidential candidate and former Mexico City mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
A close election with somewhat high turnout
Alfredo Del Mazo (Toluca, 1975) is part of a political dynasty in the state, commonly called the “Atlacomulco Group” – since it was formed in Atlacomulco, a city in the northwest of the State of Mexico – and linked to president Peña. On the other hand, the story of Delfina Gómez is worth telling, especially in a country characterized by a very rigid social mobility. The daughter of a construction worker and a housewife, Delfina Gómez (Texcoco, 1962) paid for her college education in Mexico City by taking care of three children and earned a degree in Basic Education. She currently has two master’s degrees in Teaching and in Educational Institutions. She became the mayor of Texcoco in 2012 thanks to her active political and social work in the city as a school principal. She later became a member of the federal congress in 2015, from where she was launched as MORENA’s governor candidate for the State of Mexico.
The uncommon profile of Delfina Gomez in Mexican politics, especially in the most important state bastion in the country, had a very rapid growth in the election race. According to a meta-analysis of the polls prior to the election developed by Javier Márquez, Delfina Gomez started her campaign in third place, right after Alfredo Del Mazo and Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate for the National Action Party (PAN, center-right). Member of president Calderón’s cabinet and right-wing candidate in the 2012 presidential election – the first woman to ever be a presidential candidate for a major party – Vázquez Mota was a favorite to compete against Del Mazo due to her previous high exposition and her position within the party. However, she was unable to attract and excite voters, falling in the polls during the last third of the election race.
Following Vázquez Mota’s fall, calls for tactical voting launched Delfina Gómez’s chances. A week before the election, the newspaper Reforma called for a technical tie between Del Mazo and Gómez. Most analysts considered Gómez would have a chance at winning the election if the participation rate was above 54 per cent of total voters 2. On election night, the three major candidates announced they had won the election – a new tradition in Mexican politics. At 8p.m, the state electoral institute announced the voting was too close to call, based on the exit polls, and that they would wait for the rapid count to give results with more certainty. Finally, around 10p.m, a winner was called: Alfredo del Mazo, with 33.7% of the votes and a participation rate of 53% – above the 47% average historical rate.
A Pyrrhic victory for PRI?
Unsurprisingly, MORENA won in the mostly urban municipalities close to Mexico City, which has been ruled by the left since 1997, when a political reform allowed its inhabitants to vote for the city mayor. However, PRI was the clear winner in the western, more rural region of the state. Interestingly, as in previous elections in the country, women didn’t favor the female candidates: Del Mazo won 37% of the women’s vote, while Gómez got 28%. On the other hand, Gómez won the men’s vote (34%) with a 4-point margin over Del Mazo. Also, Del Mazo won broadly among the least educated voters, while Gómez had a considerable advantage with college-educated voters.
After the election, major newspapers and analysts decried the active role many members of Peña Nieto’s cabinet and the current governor – Eruviel Ávila – played during the campaign, promoting social programs even as the law prohibits any activity related to public social programs during elections. Governor Ávila even posted on Twitter, in violation of the ban, an “inspection round” to “supervise works” of a health clinic in Atizapán. Peña’s fears were justified: Had Morena won the State of Mexico, one of the plausible scenarios would have been that López Obrador would have increased his lead as the favorite for the 2018 presidential election. And although PRI won again, this is the closest margin between two head candidates in the history of state elections. So this victory is not as good as it sounds for PRI.
The impact on the 2018 presidential race
Overall, this election can be a Pyrrhic victory for PRI and a launch pad for López Obrador’s presidential campaign. However, these results have to be interpreted with caution. In the municipalities next to Mexico City – that MORENA won this time around – voters have historically chosen the centre-right PAN in local and state elections. So is it a real support for MORENA’s platform or a tactical choice, as many polls tend to show? In other words, does this election signal a real pattern change or an outlier? .
The State of Mexico is a political thermometer for the year to come, whose presidential race promises to be complicated and full of turmoil. For now, MORENA is expected to win the Mexico City local election by a wide margin. And López Obrador is still the favorite in the run-up to the presidential election. The last state election reinforced the probability of this scenario. For now.
Carlos Brown Solà is a Mexican economist and international affairs researcher on development and urban economics, as well as political economy.
- According to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL), a person in poverty in Mexico has an income such that, even when she spends it all in food, it is not enough to acquire the necessary to have an adequate nutrition (i.e. an income below the “welfare line”). A non-vulnerable and non-poor person has an income above the “welfare line” and no social shortage (e.g. food, housing, health services, social security, educational lag). ↩
- Mexicans don’t need to register to vote: anyone with a voter ID can vote. ↩